L’isle-sur-la-Sorgue deserves much more than a day trip from Avignon, but that’s exactly what we, rookies that we are, did for our first outing in Provence. We were up before sunrise, made our way to the train station where we boarded a regional bus and 50 pleasant minutes later disembarked at the L’isle-sur-la-Sorgue train station. A few minutes later we were strolling through the old village center.
We’d arrived on a beautiful, warm and sunny October morning. And it being Thursday, we’d arrived on market day. The village streets were jammed with antique vendors, vegetable sellers, yard good merchants and just about everything in between, including a couple of polished stone kitchen sinks.
Jamie would have been content just to wander around a bit. But Susan, the ever-organized, headed straight to the visitor’s center to get her bearings and plan our day.
The young lady at the tourist office was a big help. First, she coached us in how to pronounce the name of the city. Second, she provided a map (in 10 languages) that laid out a Discovery walk (a village walk) and a Nature walk. We also gathered up a very nice booklet describing many of the other villages in the area. That was our first inkling that a day trip might not cut it.
Nature, Art, Antiques, and Food
L’isle-sur-la-Sorgue is known for having one of the largest concentration of antique dealers in all of Europe. In France the city is second only to Paris. There are around 200 shops and another 100 permanent tents open on Thursday and Sunday market days.
The first antiques fairs in 1966 grew from twice-annual fairs to permanent residency as the city’s population grew from 7,000 inhabitants to over 20,000 today. The fairs bring in more than 500 vendors and occur Easter weekend and August 15 if you are planning a visit. And that’s not all. Many other events are scheduled throughout the year.
Many of the shops feature antiques that are “upcycled.” Refurbishing, repurposing, and reusing old things really appeals to us and we spent many happy hours exploring what was available that day. We prefer to do our own upcycling but stealing more ideas would be worth a second trip. There is also an annual upcycling fair held in the village which must be fascinating.
As the village name, “the island on the Sorgue” suggests, the clear, slow flowing river is an important feature of this village. Restaurants, shops, and antique stores line its banks.
We were checking out the open air market stalls and strolling along the river when we came across the first creperie we’ve seen that offered a vegan gallette. We were back at Suzette’s promptly at noon to claim a riverside table. Our crepes weren’t what we expected – more salad than hot dish – but, we were not disappointed.
After lunch we popped across one of the many small footbridges to take in La Fondation Villa Datris where contemporary art takes center stage. The building – a 19th century Provencal villa complete with an exquisite garden was as delightful as the art. Exhibits change regularly, we enjoyed a retrospective of works from more than 120 sculptors they’ve shown over the last 30 years. Jamie was in heaven – sculpture, sculpture everywhere – inside and out. The garden backs against one of the river channels and proved to be a peaceful setting for showcasing the larger sculptures.
Another museum to go back for is La Flaventure, a museum that captures the era of wool cloth production. Before L’isle-sur-la-Sorgue became the center of antiques it was an industrial town putting the Sorgue River to use.
Beginning in the Middle Ages, sheep were raised in the Vaucluse mountains and the wool was fulled in the water mills on the Sorgue. Back in the day there were 66 water wheels on the canals of the Sorgue. In addition to wool, the power of the river was used for paper, silk, flour, sawmills, plaster works and even toward the end, pasta factories.
The Brun de Vian-Tran wool factory was established in 1808 and is the last factory operating in the village. In 2018 they opened the museum and provide tours. The factory is renowned for it’s top of the range clothing in France and abroad.
The Campredon Centre d’Art is housed in a 1746 mansion with permanent and temporary exhibits of art along with workshops, lectures, and exhibition space. Sadly, we didn’t have time to visit. Our afternoon train back to Avignon was about to depart.
L’isle-sur-la-Sorgue should have been more than a day trip.
Susan’s Sidebar: The Vaucluse Region along the Sorgue River
With a car at your disposal, it’s possible to discover nature along with four additional villages left in a more natural state. Don’t get me wrong. I liked L’isle de-la-Sorgue and it makes a great base but it is highly commercialized. In the right season I would head out to Fontaine-de-Vaucluse, the source of the Sorgue River, and rent a kayak. Maybe the next day I would go to Saumane-de-Vaucluse, rent a bike and ride through the orchards.
Le Thor, a 12th century fortified city is also accessible by train from Avignon and has two concert halls and performance venues with a varied program throughout the year. Chateauneuf-de-Gadagne is built on top of a hill with sweeping views of the Vaucluse Mountains. It’s a great place for hiking, biking, and taking in the panorama. Of course, in all these areas the locally produced Cotes-du-Rhone wines take center stage.
More information at: https://www.uk.islesurlasorguetourisme.com